A Good Life

Jonathan Clements

IS THIS A MOMENT of cultural change? I see glimpses of a new way of thinking. The New York Times recently ran articles on both the cult of thrift and the financial independence/retire early—or FIRE—movement. Words like mindfulness, purpose and meaning have gained new currency. U.S. household debt is growing, but it’s still barely higher than a decade ago. The national savings rate even shows signs of improving.

Maybe this is yet another reverberation from the Great Recession. Maybe it’s financial necessity, as Americans adjust their lifestyle to their skimpy savings. Maybe our perspective on money is changing: The young are turned off by the work world’s brutally long hours and constant layoffs, while the old are realizing how little happiness money has brought them.

Gone is the obsession with The Good Life. We were raised to think that happiness lay in material goods and moments of relaxation. But the material goods proved disappointing and those moments of relaxation left us restless. Now, what people increasingly want is A Good Life—one that’s focused on time with friends and family, work that’s fulfilling and a sense of financial security.

I’m not suggesting everybody’s on board with this cultural shift. There are still plenty of folks who seek salvation at the shopping mall or one rung further up the corporate ladder. We’re hardwired to run the hedonic treadmill, confident that the next purchase, promotion or pay raise will finally bring lasting happiness, only to discover it doesn’t.

But it’s also possible to buck those hardwired instincts, cultivate new habits and learn new ways of thinking. Change isn’t easy, but it is indeed possible.

Think about the investment world. Most of us are inclined to be overconfident. One example: 65% of Americans think they’re more intelligent than average. In the past, that sort of overconfidence led many investors to try their hand at beating the market. But over the past decade, millions have realized that this overconfidence has cost them dearly, prompting them to shovel trillions of dollars into market-matching index funds.

Similarly, it’s possible to unlearn the beliefs that have left us going nowhere fast on the hedonic treadmill. As I’ve written elsewhere, I see this among my peers, those also in their 50s and 60s. After decades of disappointment, they’ve grown wiser about how to deploy their money for maximum happiness.

Ready to ditch The Good Life and pursue A Good Life instead? Here are half-a-dozen simple strategies, all drawn from my new book:

  • Create a wish list of potential expenditures, stick it on the refrigerator and revise it constantly. That’ll prompt you to think harder about how you spend your money—and you’re more likely to use your dollars in ways that bring greater happiness.
  • Think about which moments you enjoy the most during a typical week and which you dislike the most. See if you can pay others to do the tasks you loathe and use the freed-up time to focus on activities you truly enjoy.
  • Figure out what causes you financial anxiety and then revamp your finances to ease those worries. Often, you can achieve substantial peace of mind simply by keeping a few thousand in the bank, ridding yourself of nonmortgage debt and saving regularly for the future.
  • Make plans with friends and family—and, if you can, make them far ahead of time. Research says spending time with friends and family gives a huge boost to happiness. And if you hatch those plans far in advance, whether it’s making a restaurant reservation, buying concert tickets or booking a vacation, you’ll enjoy a long period of eager anticipation, which may prove more enjoyable than the event itself.
  • Imagine the size of your paycheck didn’t matter. What sort of work would you do? You could indeed do that sort of work as a second career—if you prep your finances by saving diligently in the years ahead.
  • On this earth, our only immortality is the memory of others. Think about how you would like to be remembered by friends and family. What would it take to create those memories—and are you taking the necessary steps?

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Jack of Hearts, Budget Busting and All Better.

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4 years ago

I agree completely with your assessment of the good life. My wife and I were on the hedonic treadmill in our twenties. We used to call it “golden handcuffs.” As our salaries grew, so did our lifestyle. A sudden job loss made us to take a hard look at our financial lifestyle. Long story short, we decided to downsize. We weren’t willing to work just to make big mortgage and car payments any more. Over the years we watched our family and friends move up into one yuppie palace after another. We stayed in our comfortable but modest home. I’m sure they figured we just weren’t doing very well financially. We paid off our mortgage in 15 years. Even though we never made big money, we saved a lot of money. Our modest lifestyle enabled us to live off one paycheck and save the other. Today, our friends and family are still working. My wife and I are retired. They have an abundance of material things, yet they can’t afford to retire.

4 years ago

Relational idealism is all the rage these days. But neither “the good life” or “a good life” can deliver happiness. You might think spending more time with your family can deliver happiness to you, but they may see it differently and often do.

Sorry HumbleDollar, but you’re engaging in just as much idealism as the other extreme you see yourself opposing. Encouraging people to maximize their happiness by using a formula is a sure way to make people unhappy.

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